Curriculum Planning

Redefining Failure

Why encouraging students to get everything right is the wrong direction.

April 17, 2017
Three cartoon lightbulbs standing together–one frowning, one jumping up and down and smiling, the other crying.
©Shutterstock.com/Serbinka

As educators, we understand conceptually how failure can help students learn, but do we really believe it? I think if we did, we might build failure—in a significant way—into the scope and sequence of our curriculum. (It's true that state testing season is upon us and the word failure is hardly permissible right now, but let's talk about it anyway.) What would our classrooms perhaps look like if we were to allow for more failure, even embrace it?

Failure in the Classroom: How It Looks

For starters, a classroom based on failure would encourage routine trial and error. When we teachers plan ahead for there to be failure, we create time for students to flounder, take missteps, or even totally fail. Inquiry-based learning uses failure to its best advantage. (To make sure we are using the word inquiry correctly, inquiry is a learning activity in which the solution or end result is not known beforehand—even the teacher is unsure of what students will come up with.)

Teachers who are designing inquiry-based learning for their students take the essential feedback from failure and make sure there are multiple opportunities for students to improve. This is often done in a low stakes or formative way, allowing students to practice and do better. For example, it only takes a few gutter balls before someone learning to bowl will be able to send that ball down the middle of the lane. A handful more practice throws and that learner may experience the thrill of a strike. Each time that beginning bowler rolls that ball, the iterative act gets him closer to his goal.

Teachers not fearful of failure can encourage students to take risks—“Go ahead and roll that ball!”—recognizing from the start that some of those risks will move students to the next level of learning.

Before the next iteration of the learning process, a teacher who embraces failure will teach students to begin the learning-from-mistakes process by asking not just “How did the project, paper, or plan fail?” but also:

  • "Why did it fail?”
  • “Was the approach flawed from the initial concept?”
  • “What was not flawed?”
  • “What is your next step, and what will you adjust or keep the same?”

Wicked Problems

Teachers who espouse failure in their classrooms also relish “wicked problems”—those really difficult problems that are seemingly impossible to solve. Failure-friendly teachers know that a group of students has a much better chance of successfully tackling wicked problems than a student working solo (regardless of her smarts) because of the synergy of multiple viewpoints—all thinking about the same problem. Thus, students working together with a collaborative spirit is key.

I believe that truly embracing failure in our classrooms is an antidote to shallow learning. For example, students in difficult math classes in Helsinki, Finland, are expected to fail horribly at first, and the students and teachers don’t freak out about it. The students are given time and support to learn from their mistakes and make corrections. They understand that always getting the problem right or getting it right from the very start is not akin to living in the real world.

The Power of Failure

Teachers open to students failing will teach them to apply the process of plan-do-study-act. For example, when solving a wicked math problem, students would first name the problem (drawing a picture if necessary) and plan a first step. Then, in do, they work the problem with that plan and see how far it will go. Students then study the progress and if they’re on the right track, continue; otherwise they start over on a different avenue. Next, they ask others what they did and get more information, while also looking at examples of similar problems. Finally, they act to either complete the problem or start over with a different approach. This is a messy process, yet this is what real learning is all about.

When we teachers adopt and practice the power of failure in our classrooms, a low mark on a paper or project will no longer signify defeat and despair to our students. Instead it will signify an opportunity to go back to concept and discover the error in thinking. This encourages students to work together and engage in the iterative learning process of taking failure and making it a success. In my experiences, it increases the quality of the products because students (and teachers) don’t simply settle for “good enough.”

Creating a space in the classroom for failure also encourages students to approach solving problems in nonlinear ways, using multiple possibilities and futures for refining their thinking. How do you employ failure in your classroom? Please share in the comments section below.